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Renée Fleming as Marschallin [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
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Der Rosenkavalier at the MET

The Met’s production of Der Rosenkavalier still arouses gasps from audience members as the curtain rises on each set — and laughter at appropriate moments — and tears at others.

Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier

Octavian: Susan Graham; Marschallin: Renée Fleming; Sophie: Miah Persson; Baron Ochs: Kristin Sigmundsson; Italian Singer: Barry Banks; Faninal: Hans-Joachim Ketelsen; Annina: Wendy White. Conducted by Edo de Waart. Metropolitan Opera. Performance of October 19.

Above: Renée Fleming as Marschallin

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera


If it had been redesigned and restaged by Luc Bondy of this season’s Tosca, the rising curtain would not show us a splendid rococo bedroom with St. Stephen’s Cathedral subtly phallic in the distance but would be placed in an underground dormitory where three strapping stablehands would service the Marschallin whenever Octavian took a breather. No doubt we will live to see such a Rosenkavalier. For the moment, happily, we’ve still got the forty-year-old Nathaniel Merrill production on Robert O’Hearn’s sets, in which pretty much every action seems to take place synchronically with descriptions of or references to that action in Strauss’s score. How very Old Hat! (The hats — and gowns and wigs and uniforms — are probably less old, actually, though still in the proper style.)

Persson_Sophie.pngMiah Persson as Sophie

Last Monday, the production looked spiffy — how much of it is original and not rebuilt and repainted, I wonder? — and Edo de Waart led a sparkling performance of this most graciously autumnal of chestnuts. The comic business may be familiar, but it went off without a hitch, from the well-behaved lapdog and the wheezing lawyer in Act I to the dozen sword-waving hussars in Act II to the raucous children in Act III. Stage direction is credited to Robin Guarino, and there are some touches I don’t remember: Did the children always mistake Valzacchi and Faninal for their Papa and have to be rerouted? (That was funny.) Did the egotistical Singer (Barry Banks, in full satirical glory) always trample his music in disgust when leaving the levee? (So was that.) Did Baron Ochs always try to make out with another, more willing maid of the Marschallin when Mariandel proved elusive? Most interesting of all, maybe, did the Marschallin always totter about on an imaginary crutch when daydreaming of her future, aged self? Or has Renée Fleming come up with that bit in the years since she sang it last? She possesses comic chops she has scarcely used in her prima donna career — as has been true of many great stars.

What all this shows is the novelty that can be added, as casts change and work out new business, even in the most traditional stagings of thrice-familiar operas.

ROSENKAVALIER_Fleming_and_Graham_3750.pngSusan Graham as Octavian and Renée Fleming as Marschallin

As she has approached the Marschallin’s years (allowing for inflation of the youthful stage from the 1760s to our era), Fleming’s voice has grown thinner, less penetrating on top but fuller, more satisfying in the lower reaches, with less of the famous velvet cream that thrills her fans but annoys those of us who have found her phrasing inexact. These sins were always less noticeable in German roles anyway — Strauss keeps her on her mettle. She was humorous here, as suits a Viennese, and maintained hauteur without the goddess-like dimension Kiri Te Kanawa used to bring, perhaps inappropriately, to the final scene.

Susan Graham makes a more convincing bumptious boy than she does a graceful lady in certain other roles. While Fleming’s voice has lost some luster on top, Graham’s I find thinner, ungraceful, in the lower reaches, more inclined to the blundering quality of “Mariandel,” even when she is singing Octavian’s lines. Her acting is appealing in both the amorous scenes with Fleming and the “flirtatious” punches she gives the Baron whenever he grabs “Mariandel” inappropriately — but the dramatic peak of the night came when Graham and Miah Persson’s Sophie stopped dead, half bowing, eye to eye, infatuated at first glance at the presentation of the rose and seemed almost unable to continue in their aristocratic ritual.

ROSENKAVALIER_Fleming_Graham_Sigmundsson_Persson_4461.pngSusan Graham as Octavian, Renée Fleming as Marschallin, Miah Persson as Sophie and Kristin Sigmundsson as Baron Ochs

Miah Persson has a lively, energetic, easy high soprano, vocally lacking nothing called for by the part, but she lacked for me certain ideal Sophic qualities: there was less girlishness, less poutiness than with most. She was a woman, not a child — but Sophie is specifically a naïve fifteen. Her chatter on being introduced to the Marschallin was too calm for chatter, her breasts seemed awfully prominent and exposed for a girl fresh from a convent, and her grin is too wide; too, she is the tallest Sophie ever to grace this production — she has all the goods for Sophie, but she isn’t Sophie, at least not in this production. Perhaps they play the part more maturely in her native Sweden, a country sadly lacking in aristocratic convents.

Kristin Sigmundsson, tall even beside Susan Graham, made a grabby, sleazy, stingy, you-love-him-because-you-loathe-him Baron Ochs. His grainy voice is not what one would want in a lover in any case, and both his topmost and bottom notes were weak to inaudibility, but he inhabited the role to perfection. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen sang a fine Faninal, less dignified than some — but then, the man is a ridiculous snob, redeemed only because the piece is a comedy with Mozartean aspirations. Wendy White, as Annina, and Jennifer Check, as Sophie’s governess had the loudest voices on stage, though Jeremy Galyon’s policeman came close.

Some of the less well-judged cutenesses that afflicted recent revivals are gone, and the entire presentation is snappier. Either Robin Guarino or Edo de Waart should have most of the credit, but all hands win applause.

John Yohalem

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